Monday, November 26, 2012

Life After Death by Damien Echols

In 1994, three teenagers were convicted of murdering three younger boys and disposing of the bodies in the woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. During the trial, HBO documentary filmmakers followed the accused - Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin - as the three were sentenced to life in prison, and in the case of Damien Echols, the death sentence. The film, Paradise Lost, would go on to attract the attention of thousands, as it seemed clear the three teenagers were wrongly accused, or for those still unconvinced of their innocence, that the boys deserved a new and fair trial. Celebrities and average citizens alike would rally to fight for the West Memphis Three's release, and two subsequent HBO documentaries would follow. In August 2011, the three men, having spent eighteen years in prison, were released by a legal loop-hole known as an Alford Plea.

Life After Death includes Damien's story and writings from his time on death row, at least those writings which were not confiscated and destroyed by guards. It is a terrifying story of a boy becoming a man while spending the entirety of his youth behind bars. For his limited education and sordid upbringing, he is a brilliantly eloquent writer, and readers will experience the full gamut of emotions from anger and frustration at a legal system that failed time and time again, to utter despair and sadness for the turmoil in one man's life.

Yet, Damien's story is also a story of hope and triumph in the most brutal of circumstances. Now a free man, he discusses the road ahead of him and looks forward to what the future holds. He has a loving wife and countless supporters. I have followed the case for a number of years since first seeing the HBO film, and over the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Echols at a book signing. He is soft spoken and wears tinted glasses, as years behind bars have wreaked havoc on his vision. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied, "Wonderful and getting better every day."

For more on the West Memphis Three, you might also want to read Devil's Knot, which is set to be released next year as a film starring Reese Witherspoon.

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